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Excellus reports spike in mental health telehealth visits

New data from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield shows a spike in telehealth visits during the COVID-19 pandemic, with one-third of those visits for mental health services.

“The spike we’ve witnessed this year in the use of telehealth is directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Excellus Medical Director Sudha Bakshi M.D. said in a statement. “We may look back on this crisis as the trigger event that forever changed the way health care services are delivered, and the level of acceptance and treatment of mental health disorders.”

Excellus estimates that New Yorkers used telehealth benefits roughly 290,000 times last year. In the first four months of 2020, a time marked by the global spread of COVID-19, the number skyrocketed to an estimated 2.6 million times.

Some 20 percent of the population lives with mental illness, according to NAMI Rochester, an independent affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and NAMI New York State. NAMI defines mental illness as a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood, and may affect an individual’s ability to function and relate to others.

Yet, four in 10 upstate New Yorkers believe that society is unsympathetic to those with mental illness, according to a survey on mental health issues commissioned late in 2019 by Excellus BCBS.

“Increasing access to care, including expanding the use of telehealth, may be a factor in reducing the stigma associated with mental illness,” Bakshi said.

Social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has helped many patients realize they can see a specific health provider on an ongoing basis from the privacy of their residence, where they feel comfortable, officials said. Psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, counselors, nurse practitioners and other behavioral health and mental health providers all can provide care and services via telehealth.

“There is no doubt that people are now more aware of the fact that we all need to pay attention to our mental health,” said NAMI Rochester Director Heather Newton. “The monumental change we are seeing is the opening up of telehealth. Across the board, there has been an enormous uptick in the number of people who are engaging virtually with providers regularly and meaningfully.”

The top five mental and behavioral health conditions for which Excellus BCBS members are seeking treatment using telehealth are anxiety, depression, substance-related disorders, bipolar disorder and alcohol-related disorders.

Individuals can find additional information from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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